Electronic Music Legend deadmau5 Innovates on His Own—and with Others

During a Zoom video call from his home in Ontario, Canada, deadmau5 (real name: Joel Zimmerman) smiles as he explains why he works well on his own. “I did want to have a band,” he says, “but then it’s like four brains in a room, and that gets a little overwhelming and confusing. God bless any band that made it anywhere with more than three people. I’m just too much of a control freak.”

The legendary electronic musician and producer does work with collaborators from time to time, though—as he’s done with Canadian singer-songwriter Lights on “When the Summer Dies,” his latest single (out July 16 via his mau5trap imprint). 

“Originally, I wrote this song for Lights, and then she sent back that vocal and did this kind of funky tune for it,” deadmau5 says. “I sat on it for a while, but then I took her vocals and laid them out on a whole new, different track behind it, basically.” This is, he says, is “not unusual for me. That’s just how I work with singers and songwriters. I usually wait a couple of days until I’m at peace with it, and then I send it back to them and they’re usually pretty cool with it. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool—I didn’t see that coming.’”

With this track, as with others he’s done with collaborators, it turns out that deadmau5 may not actually be quite as much of a control freak as he claims. In fact, he says he’s happy to let the other artists do what they do best without his interference. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, can you change that word? Could you sing that differently? Could you maybe make it go up a fifth?’ I stay in my lane and they stay in theirs, and then we take the two things—and if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, then I’ll usually change my part, as opposed to having them redo it,” he says.

When looking for collaborators, sometimes deadmau5 makes a discovery: “I’m scouting around and I’m presented with a demo, someone who’s just a real talent.” Most of the time, though, he turns to artists he already knows, who are “really cool people and easy to get along with,” he says. “Like Lights. She’s great. She’s hilarious. She’s a very dear friend of mine.” He adds that he also looks for artists who are “on key, and have a unique property to your voice.” His other collaborators have included superstars acts such as The Neptunes, but deadmau5 has also made it a point to work with up-and-coming Canadian artists like Rezz and Kiesza.

Still, deadmau5 estimates that “80 percent, if not more” of his music doesn’t involve anyone else. Since creating a buzz on the international club circuit when he started out in the late ‘90s, he’s become renowned as one of the most innovative EDM artists in the world with a sound that, he says, has “been refined over a couple of decades. But yeah, I did kind of come out of the gate with a little more melancholic, melodic sound to a genre that I felt was kind of lacking in that department. It was very syncopated, strict rhythms, and very simple leads and hooks. I just wanted to be that change in the banality of what I thought dance music was at the time.”

Ironically, deadmau5 didn’t initially intend to become a performing musician. Initially, he says, his dream was to become a recording engineer. “I wanted to work in the studio, working on production for other people,” he says. “It’s not like I was a kid and my mom would have the camcorder out and I’d be putting on plays every fucking day. I hated that shit.”

The shift to becoming a performing artist came, deadmau5 says, because “It was instilled in me as, ‘Look, if you want to get paid for what you do, you’ve got to go and do this…’ They were like, ‘Okay, well, you’re going to make music. But guess what? Now we’re going to throw you up onstage and you’re going to have to do this in front of thousands of people.’ I had to adapt.” He was immediately booked to do large shows at venues like the main stage at the legendary London dance club Ministry of Sound.

This discomfort with performing prompted deadmau5 to begin wearing large helmets shaped like mouse heads onstage so he could hide his face. “I was like, ‘Is there a way we could do it in such a way that I would be up there but you wouldn’t know?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, fucking mouse head.’ I was like, ‘That’s cool—let’s try it,’” he says. Even now that he’s comfortable onstage, he has no plans to end the mouse head, which has become iconic: “There’s always going to be a mouse head component.”

His music and image struck a chord, and deadmau5 has gone on to release eight acclaimed studio albums and had singles chart in several countries. He’s been nominated for six Grammy awards, and either won or been nominated for a slew of other awards internationally.

Now that deadmau5 is so firmly established, he’s looking to help others reach their potential, as well. “The motivation has now shifted over the last maybe five or ten years into participating more in contributing to science and technology and audio technology—enabling people and promoting new artists,” he says.

To accomplish this, deadmau5 founded his own EDM record label, mau5trap, in 2007. Through numerous compilation albums, as well as single-artist albums, the label has released work by several dozen artists so far. He has also used the label for putting out much of his own work. (This past spring, he launched a new label venture, hau5trap, which is being touted as “a multifaceted home for global electronic pioneers within the house music space.”)

“With electronic music, oddly enough, it’s like a rite of passage,” deadmau5 says. “After you’ve done maybe five years of touring and releasing some bangers, you almost have to start a record label at that point. But having done that now, and seeing all these artists come and go through our springboard label, it’s been really amazing to see how much we, as a label, have impacted the entirety of EDM.”

Deadmau5 clearly takes this mentoring role seriously. “I can take a back seat and put my business hat on and exchange my experiences and information with young, up-and-coming artists and say, ‘Look, here’s what I found worked,’” he says, “and then watch them take little bits and pieces of that, but still have their own thing and then invent new shit, too—and then off they fucking go.”

Besides releasing his own music and continuing his record label work, deadmau5 is also back on the road this summer. Even as he goes around the world selling out major venues, he still takes it in stride: “I don’t look out and then think to myself, ‘Oh, wow—look at what I’ve done, these people are really into what I do.’ I think about if I left the fucking stove on, shit like that,” he says with a grin.

“But,” deadmau5 adds, “in the back of my mind, when I’m not onstage, I still do understand the impact of the music and the brand that does resonate with people—and then creating new memories with them.”

Photos by Matt Barnes

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